Variously characterized as ingenious, cheap, or (by those familiar with ’60s cult favorite Carnival of Souls) secondhand, the suckerpunch finale of The Sixth Sense served at least to divert attention from the film’s soggy mysticism, nagging inconsistencies, and coarse horror-playbook jolts. But the real surprise, if you could get past the closure-seeking ghosts and therapeutic approach to exorcism, was writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s curious tendency to alternate melodramatic surge with solemn understatement, faceless blockbuster vernacular with (in the movie’s more corporeal moments) a credible shorthand of fraught gestures and atmospheric pauses.
Shyamalan has spoken of his monster commercial breakthrough in terms of cracking a Spielbergian code (“All I did was become aware of the rules that no one else is aware of,” he told the London Daily Telegraph in a canny bit of self-promotion). Essentially a backfired encore stunt, Unbreakable cleaves to a formula that was far from airtight to begin with: eerie metaphysical puzzle, New Age inflections, misplaced emphasis on blindsiding parting shot, atypically detailed scrutiny of agonized family relationships, and at the morose, benumbed center, a reluctant superhero who learns to post-traumatically apply himself, bursting forth from his twilight-zone cocoon with a salvo of cathartic do-gooding.
As David Dunn, a Philly security guard who, alone among 132 passengers, escapes a horrific train wreck unscathed, Bruce Willis hones the existential panic he mustered for 12 Monkeys and the final scene of The Sixth Sense into a sustained hum of spooked despair. Survivor’s guilt is supernaturally complicated by accruing evidence of beyond-brute strength and an indomitable immune system (traits that have generally gone unquestioned in the Willis oeuvre to date). Hints of Shyamalan’s thuddingly banal intentions seep into the frame with the emergence of David’s eminently breakable opposite number, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an ominously gloved comic-book fanatic with brittle-bone syndrome. Elijah badgers David into acknowledging his superhuman prowess and attendant obligations; suffice to say, the result involves crime-fighting in an improvised cape.
Unbreakable is presumably meant to unfold at a hallucinatory remove, but it doesn’t encourage credulity, let alone eventually reward it. That said, eye candy keeps it painless: This might be the handsomest Hollywood production of the year, thanks largely to a crack team that includes cinematographer Eduardo Serra (The Wings of the Dove) and editor Dylan Tichenor (Magnolia). There’s a showy precision to the visual style, all storyboarded symmetries and deft, fluid stealth. (As in The Sixth Sense, however, James Newton Howard’s rudely overcued score is a ubiquitous irritant.) Shyamalan gravitates once again to the unruly tangle of family dynamics: David’s uncomfortably starched relationship with his preadolescent son (though the scene in which the kid abruptly decides to test his dad’s invincibility is inexplicable, even as comedy) and his miserable, hollowed-out marriage. The most affecting scene has the alienated couple out on a tentative, reconciliatory date, exchanging vital stats (his wife, played by Robin Wright Penn, reveals her favorite song: “Soft and Wet” by the Artist Formerly Known as Prince). But mostly, what passed for melancholic austerity in The Sixth Sense registers here as fetishistic, perversely shrill sobriety: Unbreakable is at once flagrantly absurd and stubbornly mournful. To his credit, Shyamalan sticks to his guns; the grating incongruity persists at a deafening pitch until it finally splits the film wide open.
A close encounter with death also provides the narrative motor in Bounce. Raising the bar for morbid high-concept romance, Don Roos’s second feature compounds Random Hearts‘ aviation-disaster matchmaking with Return to Me‘s why-do-you-remind-me-of-my-dead-spouse quandaries. Ad exec Ben Affleck, opting to spend the night with Natasha Henstridge in an airport hotel, donates his ticket to amiable stranger Tony Goldwyn. The plane crashes; Ben guzzles whiskey and thinks about fate—which naturally plummets him into rehab, his guilt all the while exacerbated by the fact that he was on his way home from securing a lucrative deal with the airline in question. A year on, Ben tracks down widow Gwyneth Paltrow and finds her tragic aura irresistible.
The least sympathetic performers in the Miramax clan, Affleck and Paltrow generally fail to convince when required to project love in any direction other than inward, though the pairing flatters her—if only because crumple-faced emoting is somewhat more tolerable than smirky preening. The script calls for Affleck’s cocky swagger to redemptively evaporate, but it simply morphs into dubious fratboy sensitivity. A calculated departure from the lockjawed wisecracks of Roos’s The Opposite of Sex, Bounce suggests a grown-up (or is that ingrown?) Dawson’s Creek: syncopated glibness, discreet sentimentality, wall-to-wall Sarah McLachlan-and-friends soundtrack. It’s been smoothed over plenty, but this is one creaky, rigged contraption. (An early giveaway: Affleck and Goldwyn’s fleeting airport interaction is videotaped, earmarked as a subsequent bombshell.) Roos works hard at flattering his audience as urbane and intelligent: a repeated Whitman reference, a bitchy gay assistant for Ben, numerous smug assertions that advertising is heinous (also a convenient way to justify his lead’s helpless smarminess). The real subject of the film is the alleviation of guilt—not just Ben’s and Gwyneth’s, but that of viewers who might normally have reservations about succumbing to this kind of schmaltz.
Like Unbreakable Bruce, teenage Hidaka (Kenji Mizuhashi) has a high threshold for pain. Kendo practice is an excuse for much pleasurable bruising at the hands of playmate Kitahara (Tsugumi). “I like it when you strike me on the head,” he informs her. Later he breaks into her locker, discovers a pair of shorts, and greedily inhales. Akihiko Shiota’s first feature, Sasayaki, dryly and quietly notes the improbable progression of a coquettish courtship into s&m mindfuck. Kitahara first suspects a lurking fetish when her new beau expresses profound envy for her dog (a blast of the Stooges would at this point have been preferable to the cutely tinkling soundtrack). When he takes to tape-recording her in the bathroom, she freaks and dumps him. But Hidaka’s tenacious passivity continues to anger, excite, and scare her; she responds by humiliating him, which only turns her on more. The movie stagnates midway, and the second half plays out with rote variations, predictably accelerated. Still, up against the screechy, sexless theatrics of Quills and the hardcore purity of the bravura Korean fuckfest Lies, this dreamy, languorous farce offers a manageable strawberry-flavored alternative, a mildly kinky Hello Kitty sadomasochism.